Review: Tbilisi Photo Festival 2019

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©Mery Aghakhanyan

Inaugurating the Georgian cultural event season for 2019 was the Tbilisi Photo Festival; kicking off on 12th September this is the only photo festival in the South Caucasus, hosted across the cobbled capital city of Tbilisi. From the very start this year was set to be one of firsts for the festival and the South Caucasus as a whole; the opening of the country’s first dedicated photographic and multimedia museum was but one highlight of many to come in the festival’s ten day programme. Major themes to look out for this year include the migrant crisis, disinformation campaigns with a focus on Russia, and a celebration of hot photographers from the South Caucasus.

Pulling into its 10th year as Arles blows past its semi-centennial, Tbilisi is well established in the South Caucasus and much of Europe. And so, it comes as a surprise to see this is the first year in which South Caucasian photographers are truly in the limelight; featuring photographers of all backgrounds from Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia, to which the most prominent exhibition of the event is dedicated. Lead from the start by festival co-founder and curator, Nestan Nijaradze, this culmination of prideful post-soviet culture was an eye-opening look into a tight-knit community. One that is embracing it’s traditionally socialist documentary roots while making room for a developing contemporary fine-art photography scene.

Opening night and Nan Goldin’s Georgian premiere was a sentimental affair; The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1985) was an apt performance in the context of Georgia’s rapidly modernising culture. This 40 minute slideshow-documentary details Goldin’s unclouded perceptions of the human condition on a most personal of levels. It has revealed contemporary photography’s ability to understand an intimate gaze through untraditional means by valuing the emotional weight of a moment over technical accuracy. Although often openly unspoken and seemling bound in tradition, ideas of sex and body acceptance have already begun to be challenged by Georgian artists, but Nan Goldin’s work has been as relevant here as anywhere else since its conception in the 70s and 80s. Even so, Georgia’s first ever nude/queer photographic exhibtion opened only last year, created by Tbilisi based photographer Lasha Fox Tsertsvadze. Goldin’s ballad brought foundation to an important conversation: Plucked from Arles, courtesy of sponsorship from the United States, yet perfectly at home in a rapidly changing Georgian social landscape. Just as well this screening took place in Tbilisi’s Bassiani techno club: Steeped in controversy and all but tailor made for Goldin.

The following day, spilling out of the base of the Leghvtakhevi waterfall that feeds Tbilisi’s old-town sulphur baths, was a display of NOOR photographers Yuri Kozyrev and Kadir van Lohuizen’s Arctic: New Frontier. The Carmignac Photojournalism Award winning series details their formidable 15,000km trek across the Arctic ice in 2018. Their stunning body of work is possibly the most comprehensive view of our direct impacts on the Arctic ice and what that frobodes for the planets climate as a whole. Critical perspectives of Russia from Kozyrev in particular begin to hint at one of the wider themes of the festival: Disinformation and the information war. A stark relevance to current news trends brought an undercurrent of suspense, but most attendees shared an excitable appreciation of the Dutch-Russian duo’s presentation none-the-less. Feelings of admiration of natural beauty with the knowledge of its inevitable demise were emotionally charged by the chorus of rushing water that echoed between the crowd.

Kadir van Lohuizen / NOOR Arctic, Alaska, Point Hope, whale hunting, May 2018
© Kadir van Lohuizen, NOOR

In 2010, Arles Photo Festival teamed up with their Georgian counterparts to produce a homage to La Nuit de l’Annee in Tbilisi. Since then The Night of Photography has grown to be the largest of all events at Tbilisi Photo Festival, pulling in approximately 10,000 guests throughout the night. This year, as to fit the festival’s theme of migration, this beloved event was produced in partnership with the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD). 

Under a bristling canopy of trees, dimly lit by the flickering assortment of 9 projections, Tbilisi was welcomed into Mushtaidi Park by a celestial set by critically acclaimed local electronic music producer, Kordz. Mushtaidi Park is one of Tbilisi’s oldest and is home to a charming amusement park of sorts. Colourful animals hang from carrousels, their vibrance lost to the night. Stumbling around on the heels of locals that hold on to dear memories of their childhoods under these very trees was a surreal experience. Previous years saw screens placed around Tbilisi old town, but for the festival’s 10th they decided to consolidate their shows into one momentous space. You would expect Mushtaidi Park, a space filled to the brim with emotion and personal history, to compete with and perhaps overwhelm the artwork to be shown inside its reaches. In the words of the curator of the event, Gvansta Jishkariani: “Here and a few spots in the city is where everybody shares the love… We all love that space, they all have sweet memories”.

The projects of around 400 artists from across the globe were beamed onto canvases hung from bandstands, trees, and across ponds. The breadth of work displayed was staggering; featuring international work with awards from the likes of LensCulture, Magnum, and CAP Prize, to screens dedicated to female Geogian photographers and local political unrest of the preceding year.

Highlights to look out for were two finalists of the nights open call who were invited to attend the evening’s festivities. Belgian Alain Schroeder’s heartbreaking documentary series, Saving Orangutans, narrates humankind’s incongruous relationship with the wild in Indonesia. First impressions are of any ad campaign vying for funds in response to a nondescript humanitarian crisis, as-seen-on-TV and superficial. However, Schroeder’s approach feels human and personal despite the flurry of medically face-masked surgical gloves insistent on poking and prodding. A slew of wide angle closeups of subdued orangutans leave the viewer feeling personally responsible for their fate, but you are eventually vindicated by a shot of an orangutan gallantly riding the back of a man as he fordes a mighty river, alluding to restitution of mankind’s relationship with nature.

Tobias Asser of The Netherlands presented a combination of his latest works, SDIT Missions. This part stills, part moving image abstract exploration of otherworldly experiments combined science fiction fantasy with documentary photography to bring a new perspective on issues of climate change and the fate of humanity. Asser’s visceral parody of the golden age of space exploration used eerie high contrast portraits of geared up scientists and simulated microscopic views of moon-based bacterial life growing in a laboratory to disassociate space travel with valiant and admirable acts of courage. In Asser’s words, “we are destroying not just our planet but also the dream of outer space”. SDIT Missions is completely out of the ordinary, as is Asser’s established style.

Only a brief moment went by where I had the chance to take in my surroundings while clutching my map and programme. Accompanied by new found friends and colleagues from London and Hong Kong, it wasn’t long before we were introduced to the curator of night and Tbilisi based artist, Gvansta Jishkariani. From the get-go it was clear that her energy and enthusiasm was what lead the show. Months of preparation for such an event is enough to exhaust anyone, however Gvansta took it all in her stride. We were promptly invited to the reception later that night to meet with other artists and prominent people of the Tbilisi art and culture scene.

Out of the trees we found three wooden carriages sitting ready to be tugged along by a comically child-sized steam locomotive -the first of its kind-, and what turned out to be the host of the night’s reception. Gaggles of creatives ebbed and flowed between the bench seats of the train and the row of drinks and hors d’oeuvres that were soon to be demolished. Artists whose work featured on the big screens joined us on the train for positively cosy introductions and we all shared the same wish: for a steam-powered tour of Mushtaidi Park.

We spoke with local artists whose work featured in the night and others who had come in support. Georgia, being as small a country as it is, has a proportionally small but overwhelmingly passionate and supportive creative community. Who stood out to me that night was the softly spoken founder of an in-schools program for promoting creative learning in Georgian schools. Zura Tsofurashvili started his organisation, Parallelclass, in 2017 to challenge a school system stuck in the soviet-era. It is this type of personally motivated approach towards a greater good that I noticed when speaking with any Georgian creative, whether they were part of the festival or just there to support their contemporaries.

The early hours of the morning were drawing within a hair’s breadth, but as we were making our way back through the maze of Mushtaidi it was reassuring to see spare seats were still a rare commodity. The Night of Photography ran until 03:00 and I can say with certainty that this is considered early by Tbilisi nightlife standards. Tbilisi Photo Festival’s 10th run at hosting their Night of Photography was a resounding success.

The following night, after an embarrassingly late brunch of pkhali and khachapuri among other hearty Georgain delights with Gvansta and Tobias Asser, was the Galleries at Night exhibition tour. Running from 19:00 until 01:00 this city-wide gallivant took us between six galleries of varying size and setting. 

The Bird’s Nesters (c) Gregoire Eloy

Beginning at the Giorgi Leonidze State Museum of Literature, our first two exhibitions were Grégoire Eloy’s The Bird’s Nesters and Weronika Gesicka’s Confusion. Eloy had spent two years as part of the Artist in Residence Program of the Guernsey Photography Festival and Gatehouse Gallery documenting the natural environments that surrounded him on his countless walks along the coastline from 2016 to 2018. Intimate is the only way to describe Eloy’s completely immersed approach to this project, saying “I want to make the island a familiar place, to exhaust the landscape.” His vast installation pieces included collages from his accompanying book, individually measuring meters in length, and a collection of framed black and white prints that resembled a growth of moss crawling up from the floor or a crashing wave.

Confusion comes from a collection of found photographs and feeds your curiosity of the Other. Gesicka takes stock photography of an idyllic vision of the United States from the mid 20th Century and digitally manipulates them such that they become doubtful of themselves. Rather than the American Dream, these photographs belittle your hopes and begin to question identity, relationships, and human needs such that they become timeless. Attentively crafted photomontages and cleverly designed objects from Polish Gesicka bring an abstract conceptuality that is sometimes lacking in typically documentary Georgian photography.

Next and only a few minutes away was Erti Gallery, Tbilisi’s answer to White Cube gallery in London and the first of its kind in the city. Light Machines by Koka Ramishvili was the culmination of three years working with a black and white digital sensor camera to capture “light as a painting”. A series of atypical long exposure still lifes depict specially made sculptures in motion in an attempt to capture the purest example of the combination of light and time to shed the materiality of a still-life subject. Tbilisi born Ramishvili is a leading conceptual multi-media artist and has over the last three decades consistently challenged his Geogian contemporaries.

The halfway point of our journey was Project Artbeat, a two room gallery space containing assorted works from Nata Sopromadze and David Meskhi’s various projects. Meskhi’s photographs of flying athletes is Soviet in character but ideologically opposed. Himself growing up under the Soviet Union, Meskhi’s work takes on the role of being a gateway out to an individuality that the communist regime could not afford. He contrasts his study of feats of the human body with images from his time in military training and studies of celestial bodies. His abstract collection appears autobiographical; a desire for a mystical dream grounded in memories of his Soviet past.

Sopromadze has worked with the theme of death to the extent of becoming synonymous with the topic. However, her numerous projects straddle the line between light-hearted fun and sombre respect, including a great silver cross hung over the room, embossed by dozens of Polaroid photographs depicting flowers lovingly left on graves. Each image reflects the last in colour and composition to the point where the entire cross becomes one giant monument to the memories of the dead. A series of traditional gravestone portraits line the opposite wall as part of a series titled Immortals. This work sees Sopromadze’s friends opposing their fear of death by modelling for their own gravestones. Sopromadze gleefully spoke about how not one of her subjects showed concern for the subject matter and in fact were all excitedly curious to see their own futures, in a sense. 

The longer the night went on the further into old Tbilisi we crept. Untitled Gallery, similarly hidden atop a magnificent staircase, hosted a collection of private archival photographs from Georgians. This unique opportunity combined installation and found-photographs to create a space reminiscent of a brain full of a random selection of foreign memories. After some time admiring the collage of yellowing slide-photographs depicting family life and prized memories stuck to the inside of a window we were due to move on.

Piling into a couple taxis and zipping along the now quieting streets of town, the dozen or so of us left eventually found our way to Gallery Warehouse. Run by Aleksi Soselia out of his own home as an alternative to commercial galleries, he focuses on bringing attention to up-and-coming Georgian artists who might not otherwise have the opportunity to share their work with an audience. On display tonight was Sopho Kobidze’s solo show looking at scar tissue in candid close-up.

This nocturnal urban adventure was to end at Maudi, an enormous gallery situated in the northern reaches of Tbilisi on a decrepit industrial estate. On display was Job Sánchez’s colossal installation piece Luminescence: a fabric rainbow of printed Instagram selfies sent in as voluntary contributions enclosing the words ‘nothing ever transcends its immediate environment’, stretched over a wall-mounted lightbox, set to otherworldly music by Anzor Ghudushauri. The homemade bar let the drinks flow while Sánchez took questions and although once again early morning was upon us, we weren’t deturred from heading back into the city for a few closing drinks.

The first weekend may have concluded but the jam-packed schedule of events had not. Monday 16th September saw the opening of the Tbilisi Photography and Multimedia Museum (TPMM). It seemed the entirety of Tbilisi had joined us in celebration for the evening. TPMM is by no means a small establishment, being situated on the second floor of the Stamba Hotel – a former soviet-era printhouse. The space comes equipped with a long concrete-clad hall lined with scores of paired columns. At one end is a glass wall, framed much like the floor to ceiling windows that wash the hall with sunlight, that encloses a modern open-style office space. The centrepiece of the office is a grey wall with ample space for a steady rotation of archived exhibitions. Despite the venue’s generous size the prestige of the opening had brought it to capacity within minutes, much to Nestan’s (also director of TPMM) delight.

Tonight the brutalist factory windows were blacked out and TPMM was entirely lit by four huge projection screens and the runway of flickering lanterns that lead you towards them. An entire wall was reserved for three of the screens that would surround the viewer in what can only be described as wholly immersive, completely hijacking your sense of sight and hearing to transporting you to another realm. Space was left for the audience to stretch and sprawl to take in the work as comfortably as possible. TPMM’s opening screening was the immense explosion of instinct and tribality that is Unus Mundus: Rituals and Trances by Vincent Moon & Priscilla Telmon. Latin for ‘One World’, Unus Mundus is the culmination of ten years of dedicated filming from across the world. It combines more than 100 films that intimately follow rituals and sacred practices from incomprehensibly varied cultures. Run in a constant loop and set to guttural chants and sacred music, Unus Mundus allows the viewer to connect with celebrations of faith on an almost primordial level. It set a powerful backdrop for TPMM’s opening as such an ambitious and challenging work only reflects the significance of the event for the South Caucasus.

Speeches from director and host Nestan Nijaradze as well as the Deputy Regional Director for Cooperation from TPMM’s Swiss sponsor Werner Thut took the opportunity to highlight the importance of photographic media in giving a voice to those less able to speak up for themselves. TPMM was declared to be a space for sharing ideas and experiences to better promote social and cultural change for Georgia and the wider region. As Thut put it: “Photography helps us to see things we otherwise struggle to recognise and fail to put into words. It also gives a voice to marginal groups and vulnerable people, to reach out to the powerful, who usually sit in the capital.”

After a bustling opening weekend the week was a more relaxed affair, with each evening hosting either a panel discussion or workshop. Migrant’s Odyssey in Europe on Tuesday was a personal highlight. Photographers from MAPS and Magnum as well as Violetta Wagner, a migration expert with The International Centre for Migration Policy Development, got together to discuss current definitions and trends in migration since the European migrant crisis. Works discussed included Dworzak’s ‘Europa’ guide for refugees coming to Europe. Talks throughout the week addressed such topics as migration and disinformation through the lens of photography but the audiences attracted were a healthy mix photographers and just generally interested people alike.

Lesvos, Greece Oct. 18, 2015. A mother and child wrapped in an emergency blanket after disembarking on the beach of Kayia, on the north of the Greek island of Lesvos.
(c)Alessandro Penso, MAPS

I had spent a good part of my week in anticipation of the coming weekend’s closing piece. Every new face I meet eagerly asked if I will be attending the Museum of Modern Art’s Across the Mountains: The South Caucasus Photography Vol. 1 that Saturday. Earlier in the week I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting the exhibitions curator Anna Shpakova to get a behind the scenes look at what was at that point a work in progress. Beaming but clearly with much on her mind, Anna made introductions and we politely shook her elbow to save her cautiously gloved hands. Certainly a novel way to break the ice. Anna kindly brought us into her cavernous exhibition space. An aura of silent concentration mellowed us but Anna wasn’t dettured. She spoke passionately and proudly and rightly so, as Across the Mountains is a first of its kind. As she noted:  “For the first time, the collected works of the three South Caucasian countries – Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia – offer quite an intimate series in one space, [a] series that, through multifaceted and diverse attitudes, invites us to discover the Others as an alternative to ourselves.”

When opening night arrived it was as if all of autumn had arrived at once. Only serving to knock every yellowing leaf into the gutter this bitter chill made the Museum of Modern Art all the more welcoming. I, accompanied by hundreds of artists and curious spectators alike, came to see Across the Mountains in support of a South Caucasus united through the common eye of photographic media. It did not feel like the solemn end to a fantastic week like I might’ve expected, but more of a celebration.

To pick one stand-out project out of the more than twenty on display is a challenge, but I would say Armenian photographer Karen Mirzoyan comes close to summarising the sentiment of the entire show while turning it on its head. His project I’m part of send me send you square selfie generation is an installation of a row of 63 small portraits illustrated with text from six different languages. In essence, it is a critical commentary of contemporary arts’ insistence on being neatly packaged and easily accessible to the English speaking world. Mirzoyan’s ever-changing self reflection makes a point of the differences between us to break these barriers down. His use of language, ordering 39 of his images to match the Armenian alphabet, as a tool for expressing oneself while critiquing its’ exclusivity is what makes I’m part of send me send you square selfie generation one to look out for in particular.

Across the Mountains is but one part of a multi part series of exhibitions planned by the Museum of Modern Art in Tbilisi. If this isn’t reason enough to return in 2020, there’s always Tbilisi’s 11th annual Photo Festival to jot in you diaries. If it is to be even half as welcoming and insightful as their decennial then I’ll be on the first flight. I am yet to be fatigued by all Tbilisi has to offer: the variety of hearty dishes, it’s stunningly diverse architecture, and an art community that relentlessly strives to produce the most politically provoking photographic works. Even after ten days of adventure and discovery I feel as if I’ve only just scratched the surface.

Images by Tbilisi Photo Festival 2019

-Joe Burrows

Joe Burrows studies Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at LCC and is an editor of London Photography Diary. While primarily identifying as a documentary photographer, he has begun producing written content for London Photography Diary and other online and print publications. He is currently developing a long term photographic project exploring the social impacts of the UK energy transition.